Chris White shakes his head and laughs when I show him the first photo. At 73, the bassist and songwriter for the reunited British psych-rock band the Zombies looks like a cool grandpa in black pants, blue dress shirt, and polar fleece vest — a sharp contrast from his septuagenarian bandmates who still sport leather jackets and tight pants. He adjusts his glasses and studies the image of four flamboyantly dressed young men taken in 1969. We are backstage at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills last October and after this brief intermission, White will join the rest of the band onstage to play the band’s cult classic 1967 album Odessey and Oracle in its entirety.
The Original « Zombies, » from left: Seab Meador, Dusty Hill, Frank Beard, Mark Ramsey
I pull up another grainy photo from 1969 on my laptop: a traditional black and white press photo for the Original « Zombies » (in conspicuous scare quotes), autographed. There are only four guys pictured despite the fact that the Zombies were a five-piece. I inform White that the two young men wearing cowboy hats are Dusty Hill and Frank Beard from the legendary Texas blues-rock band ZZ Top, although the names D. Cruz and Chris Page are scrawled over them. The real Zombies would have never worn cowboy hats.
The Zombies quietly disbanded when Odessey and Oracle failed to make the charts. Nobody even saw fit to correct the unintentionally misspelled “Odessey” on the record’s cover, viewed in hindsight as typical psychedelic-era wordplay. Almost two years after their breakup, after little fanfare and two failed singles, the band’s U.S. label, Date Records, decided to release the track “Time of the Season” as a last-ditch effort; the song went to No. 3 on the Billboard chart and the Zombies were suddenly in demand.
The Zombies' Odessey and Oracle album.
The Zombies, unaware of their stateside success — this was possible in 1969 — had already moved on to new musical projects or day jobs. This vacuum meant anyone could tour the United States pretending to be the Zombies, even a four-piece blues band from Dallas. As the Beatles and Stones went from garage and blues rock beginnings to more adventurous music, the Zombies took their early, more raucous hits (“She’s Not There,” “Tell Her No”) and refined them. But replicating a refined sound was hardly the priority.
There were in fact two different bands touring the United States in 1969 calling themselves the Zombies. Both impostor groups were managed by the same company, Delta Promotions, the owners of which insisted they’d legally acquired the songs of the Zombies and other bands. It was an operation that would be impossible to attempt today, perpetrated in an era when fans didn’t have unlimited access to artists' whereabouts, or, in some cases, even know what they looked like.
In the history of the American popular music, artists have often been seen as interchangeable by the industry that promotes and distributes them. In the doo-wop era, if a member of a popular group pushed back against a manager or label boss, they were simply sent packing, with a new, more compliant candidate brought in to replace them. Over the course of their existence, the Drifters have had somewhere around 60 members.
It was in this climate that Delta Promotions took this exploitation to a new extreme, figuring out a way to tour and sell “the Zombies” and other bands without those bands or their fans even realizing. As the British Invasion spurred rock's cultural explosion in the '60s, there simply weren't yet enough of these upstart bands touring North America to meet the demand. So they made some up.
Nearly 50 years later, what happened with the Zombies is now more myth than scandal, hazy details further lost to history, with many of its principal players gone or forgotten. But, in terms of sheer audacity and brazenness, it’s a story that’s still hard to top.
Before he joined Hill and Beard in the Texas band that passed itself off as the Zombies, Mark Ramsey was 18 years old and living on the outskirts of Dallas. He was good-looking, he had a sweet girlfriend named Vicki, and he loved playing guitar. During his senior year of high school, a Texas blues band called the Gentlemen came to play a school-sponsored rock concert, featuring neighborhood hotshot guitarist — and future fellow fake Zombie — Sebastian “Seab” Meador. The Gentlemen had scored a minor hit with their single « It’s a Cry’n Shame » in 1966 when Meador was only 16, and Ramsey couldn’t pass up the opportunity to introduce himself.
Ramsey remembers meeting Frank Beard later at a spot in Fort Worth called Pizza Inn, where they became fast friends. Beard knew everyone in the Dallas music scene and was noted for playing a drum kit with two bass drums, the mark of a badass drummer in 1969. Beard was already friends with Dusty Hill, and he took Ramsey to see Hill’s band American Blues.
Mark Ramsey and then girlfriend Vicki.
It wasn’t long after that that Ramsey got the call to join the fake Zombies, which at the time featured Beard, Hill, and Meador. He isn’t exactly sure how the offer came about, and is unsurprisingly fuzzy about some of the details of the era. “The ‘60s were consumed with the fascination of experimentation,” he says now, wryly. “Frank was the one who approached me. »
Frank Beard and Dusty Hill declined to be interviewed for this story, but Hill did respond to fact-checking questions by email via his manager — the first time either ZZ Top member has ever publicly acknowledged involvement in the Zombies scheme. Like Ramsey, however, Hill said he couldn’t recall how the band got started: « It was the '60s, man. » Ramsey believes they were connected with Delta Promotions through someone Meador met on tour with the Gentlemen in Florida. The players were told that the operation was perfectly legal, according to Ramsey.
“As far as the Zombies, I was told they didn't exist, » he recalls. « That they were only a studio sound. I was just excited and flattered. I'd only been playing for a few years and the other guys were pro-level at that point. I didn't look at it as anything more than a chance to have some fun, hang out with some cool guys, learn some songs, go somewhere outside of this Hillbillyville, and earn a little money. »
As a warm-up for the Zombies tour, Delta Promotions asked the Texas Zombies to go on a short tour as a different, less successful, also recently disbanded group called the Rose Garden, a Los Angeles folk-rock quintet who had a Top 20 hit in 1967 with the song “Next Plane to London.” Ramsey remembers it being the only Rose Garden song they bothered learning; the rest of their set was blues. To everyone’s satisfaction, a small run of shows in the South went off without incident.
Audiences were so starved for live music that no one confronted the fake Rose Garden despite the fact that the real Rose Garden had a female lead singer, Diana DeRose. (DeRose hailed from West Virginia, but reportedly told people she was from Blackpool, England; fact-checking was not a priority in this era.) “People did start asking where the girl was but we did OK,” recalls Hill. The lack of repercussions emboldened them when they decided to tour without a keyboard player for their Zombies gigs. Ramsey remembers Beard telling people their keyboardist had gotten busted in Dallas and was stuck in jail.
The Texas Zombies performing live
After their Rose Garden tour, Ramsey, Meador, Hill, and Beard headed to Michigan to meet with the Delta Promotions team, get photos taken, and start their run as the Zombies. They were told to use their own clothes for the shoot — that’s where the cowboy hats came in.
« You'll notice both Dusty and Frank are using stage names, » Ramsey says of the signed promo shot. « So it's almost like they knew something was wrong here. Seab signed his real name like me, probably because, like me, he didn't think we were doing anything wrong. »
Delta Promotions office building, Bay City, Michigan
The building that housed the Delta Promotions offices still stands, just as it did in 1969, alone on a dusty stretch of Tuscola Road on the outskirts of Bay City, Michigan. From this secluded spot, local businessman Bill Kehoe and his partner Jim Atherton managed Question Mark and the Mysterians and a number of smaller local bands. Tom Hocott was the first employee of Delta Promotions. He now lives in Grand Rapids where he plays music and lives a quiet life. He reluctantly agreed to meet me at a Chili’s outside of town to discuss his time with Delta Promotions. When we sit down to eat, he places a manila envelope on the table. He keeps his hand on it while telling me the story of his involvement with the fake Zombies.
Before the decline of the major label system and the rise of the internet and social media, enterprising and less than scrupulous businessmen ran the industry with relative impunity, with artists serving primarily as commodities to be exploited. Famously, Elvis’s manager Colonel Tom Parker pocketed anywhere from 25 to 50% of the star’s gross income for the duration of his career. Allen Klein, who managed the Rolling Stones after the release of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” in 1965, promptly signed the band’s publishing rights to his own company ABKCO, resulting in a string of lawsuits spanning decades. If this treatment was the norm for the era's biggest stars, it's not hard to imagine how lesser lights would fare.
A young Tom Hocott
Delta promoted its groups and put on shows at Band Canyon, the venue Kehoe owned in Bay City. “I remember it starting out pretty legitimate,” Hocott says. “Then Kehoe and Atherton started telling me that they’d acquired the rights to the music and the names of these bigger bands like the Zombies and the Animals … I knew it was probably bullshit but I guess I didn’t care. I was happy to be working in music.” Hocott is the only Delta Promotions employee who would talk about the operation. Bill Kehoe died in 1990. As for Kehoe’s partner Jim Atherton, Tom Hocott heard a rumor he’d been shot in Grand Rapids a few years after Delta Promotions folded but there is no record of this occurring. Attempts to locate Atherton were unsuccessful.
Delta Promotions was the first to notice the Zombies void in America. The plan was simple: Find competent musicians, convince them Delta was on the level, get them to a reasonable point of Zombies-like ability, and send them on the road. Once the prep was completed, they’d send the bands on tour while Delta took a healthy slice of the profits. Bay City, quiet and isolated from any prominent record labels or magazines, proved the perfect spot to operate. Delta could work in relative obscurity, sending its fake bands into metropolitan areas to absorb the risks while Kehoe and Atherton and Hocott laid low. As for how the Texas Zombies got on Delta’s radar, Hocott remembers Atherton having connections in Florida. He also recalls meeting someone who matches the description of Seab Meador months before the Texas Zombies tour.
Sebastian “Seab” Meador of the Texas Zombies performing live.
“This guy,” he says, pointing at a photo I show him of Seab Meador. “He came through Michigan first. I remember that haircut and he played a red Gibson Flying V guitar.” In one of the photos Ramsey handed me, Seab Meador is seen playing a red Flying V.
Delta had a history of shady business ventures. Early in Hocott’s employment he, along with a few other employees (including Jim Atherton), was busted for selling drugs out of the Delta offices. The police also found firearms on the premises. Hocott spent a few nights in jail. He believes his boss, Bill Kehoe, pulled strings with his friends in local government to get him out. The charges against all of them were dropped.
The Texas Zombies
June 22, 1969, was a rough night for the Original « Zombies. » According to the Saginaw News, the band were “especially disappointing” and “the crowd began to leave during their fourth tune.” The newspaper also says the band didn’t sound like they did back when they were selling millions of records. The change in sound is attributed to “a complete transition of band members…except the bass player.”
The other bands on the bill didn’t fare much better. The shambolic and chaotic nature of the Michigan rock 'n' roll scene was on full display that night. Openers Dick Rabbit threw copies of their new single into the crowd. According to the review, “Several of the records were thrown back” once the band started playing. Headliners and local heroes Question Mark and the Mysterians fared no better. They performed the entire first song before realizing the mics weren’t working. The one song everyone in the crowd came to see, “96 Tears,” could not be performed because the band’s organist had quit a week earlier and they couldn’t find anyone to fill in. According to the review, “When their 40-minute set was finally finished…there was no applause — nothing but dead silence.”
This account makes it easy to understand how a group of guys from Texas could breeze into a town calling themselves the Zombies, play a show, and then leave without incident. Locally produced rock 'n' roll shows were often a disorganized mess. Most local reviews from the era mention bad sound, shoddy playing, and unimpressed audiences. The fake Zombies fared no worse than the real Question Mark and the Mysterians, who were themselves something of an off-brand version of their original incarnation by 1969, featuring only one original member. Even the real bands felt like impostors.
“I think the reviewer must have been drunk, » Mark Ramsey says of the Saginaw show. « I don’t remember anyone walking out. Were we perfect? No, and we weren’t the Zombies. We were a blues rock band from Texas, a band with plenty of good looks, better than the original Zombies.”
They played small clubs in Michigan and Wisconsin and went up into Canada, where they appeared on TV and played a gig in a prison — it’s there where Ramsey’s story begins to differ from that of Tom Hocott. “I have a feeling that they kinda divided from Delta promotions and did their own thing, » Hocott says. « Can you imagine? I never would have sent them to prison!”
« I can’t remember how we got the gig, » remembers Dusty Hill, « but I remember a stage hand, an inmate, who was joking about escaping in my guitar case.”
Delta kept its operation simple. Hocott says the concert promoters in most cities knew they were getting fake versions of real bands. They operated as independent entities, each taking a huge percentage of the money earned. The bands had little recourse in asking for more. Ramsey remembers earning about $200 a week. As for the fans who were getting swindled, Hocott says, “When they were told, ‘Here’s the Zombies,’ they bought it. Even the strange parts, like the fact that they were touring without a keyboardist.” Fans left disappointed and the bands left town as quickly as possible. The less remembered, the better. « Then these guys came along. »
The Michigan Zombies